Why Walls Won’t Work – Part 1

Human beings have built walls for thousands of years.  So the proposed Mexican Wall should be no surprise.

The Great Wall of China is the most famous, built in pieces from 600 BC to the twelfth century.   Each piece was built by a dynasty, such as the Ming, who wanted to keep out others.  The others then breached the wall, killed off that dynasty, started their own dynasty and built more walls.  And so on.  After several of these cycles, the Wall was really long – and hard to maintain.

With the Great Wall in disrepair, Genghis Khan and his Mongols, mobile horsemen, shrugged and went around the standing sections and conquered the dynasty of the time.  Genghis did not build walls, but spent his energies conquering most of the civilized world over 6 decades.  So much for national walls. With Genghis and the gang, along with Attila the Hun and his mob, most of the then-civilized parts of Europe and Asia were constantly being killed and robbed.

Europeans, tiring of this cycle, started building walls.  Realizing that national walls were not practical, they began walling cities.  Every European country, from the 10th through the 16th  century, had one or more.  It seemed like a good idea. Close the gates, keep out the intruders, and get on with life.

But walled cities were not practical either.  You could close the gates – but only if you had a food and water supply. Because the invaders, with nothing else to do, unconcerned about visas, would camp outside.  They, of course, had plenty of food and water.  So eventually, the gates had to open and the battling began.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages.  The nomads went home, to do what nomads do, but warfare never ceased.  But now it was nation against nation, their nation attacking your walled city.  And now technology was here.  Invading armies, not content to wait like nomads, brought along tools.  First, there were machines like catapults that could hurl rocks at the walls.  Not really efficient, but an army with little else to do could hurl boulders all day for weeks until the walls crumbled.  Or, if it was really a big army, with more men than it needed, could attack the walls with ladders and eventually get over to open the gates.

Eventually, using Chinese technology that was better than their walls, armies had gunpowder.  Cannons could throw boulders or iron balls from a distance and batter down the wall.  Assuming they had brought enough iron balls, it ended badly for the city.

So the smarter Kings and Emperors began to take the wall-building money and build up armies.  The era of the Wall was over.

But some nations never learn.  After the debacle of WWI, much of which was fought in France, the French decided enough was enough and decided to fall back on traditional methods.  They built a wall to keep out the Germans: The Maginot Line.  This was a wall to behold.  750 km long, from the Belgian border to Switzerland.  A line of forts, concrete gun emplacements, bomb proof shelters, tank traps, and thick walls.  More concrete than Las Vegas, and it took 11 years to build.

So when WWII inevitably came along, the French felt warm and snug behind their wall.  The Germans, however, did not build walls.  They had spent their money on a huge mobile army (see Genghis Khan) with tanks, armored artillery, and troop carriers.  Looking at the Maginot Line, the Germans – impressed by its might – simply said: “Scheisse!  That’s one big mother of a wall.  Let’s just go around it.”  And so they hooked a right turn, drove up to Belgium, made a U-turn and invaded France by racing through wall-less Belgium, and were soon in Paris.  So much for walls.

(Magician David Copperfield did go through the Great Wall of China in 2003, but I suspect that was just a trick.)

The point is: walls have never worked.

Why Walls Won’t Work – Part 2

We left off our lesson with the Maginot Line.  It’s only value: some of the forts and underground storage halls have been used as movie sets.  So it was not a complete loss – although the Belgians have never been happy about it.

Occasionally, someone ignores these failures and builds yet another wall.  Biggest example: the Berlin Wall. With Germany divided after WWII, East and West Germany were separated by 850 miles of fencing.  Because fencing is relatively open – compared to Walls – the East German government installed armed guard towers at close intervals.  All were armed, with orders to shoot potential border crossers. This wall kept East Germans in, not out.

Berlin was shared by East and West, but was in East Germany, so it got a ring of 30 miles concrete walls and fortified barbed wire down the middle, and a 90 mile ring around the outside. This was a pain in the butt for Germans, but a great setting for spy stories from John LeCarre, Len Deighton, and Elleston Trevor.  (Remember Quiller?)  But, still, people crossed over.

We in the US took our turn, with various sections of fences and walls between us and Mexico.  But that’s one long border, and it was impossible to contain it all.  So there are still huge open portions where the border can be crossed, especially in Texas where the Rio Grande runs shallow some months of the year.  In California and Arizona, where shorter distances are literally walled, enterprising drug dealers (who have lots of working capital) have bored tunnels up to 1000 feet long underneath.  This puts the concept of a wall back a little bit.  Build a wall, and someone figures out how to tunnel under it.

And who are we keeping out?  For starters, let’s not use drug dealers as a reason.  They do come across the Rio Grande, but these are the small timers.  The cartels, big time stuff, fly it in or use shipping containers in thousand pound lots.  Think about this – they did not get that big with 50 pound shipments.  They really didn’t.

Terrorists?   Give me a break.   A real terrorist, trained in a Middle Eastern camp, will not be kept out by any wall.  Probably he or she will come in through normal channels with a visa.  Or through the even longer and unprotected Canadian border.  (Did you not see “The Bourne Identity”?)  Remember our own 9/11.  Those criminals were here legally and did not wade across the Rio Grande.  To keep out terrorists of that caliber, we would have to literally ban everyone from every country.  Can we do that?

People often use the Israelis, and their methods, as a model.  And they do an effective job.  But consider this:  Israel is smaller than Vermont.  Sure, we could afford to build a wall all around Vermont, but the above arguments still apply.  Someone would still bore a tunnel underneath and start smuggling maple syrup.

Do I have an answer?  Not a clue.   But I’m at least smart enough to know what won’t work.  We talked about the Great Wall of China, the walled cities of Europe, the Maginot Line, and the East German wall.  But shouldn’t we have learned something from them?

Walls won’t work.